Coincidentally, House Begins 2nd Stage of Digital Mail Pilot Program

Posted February 3, 2004 at 6:50pm

Just days before traces of ricin were found in a Senate mail room, reminding Capitol Hill staff of the 2001 anthrax attacks, the House Administration Committee moved into the second phase of a pilot program designed to reduce or eliminate any need for a letter opener.

The House began testing a digital mail system in 2002, about a year after anthrax spores were sent to then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.). Last week, after extensive testing by 10 volunteer offices, the committee began ramping up an improved version of the system. The changes — search capabilities and electronic delivery in real time as mail is opened — reflect suggestions made during the past year and a half.

“Ironically,” House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) said of the timing, “we’re in the process right now” of updating the software for the current pilot participants and getting ready to add 15 more offices by March.

“Phase one was intended to provide technological proof that this concept works — accurate and timely delivery of mail. Phase two builds on that experience,” Ney said.

Unlike the initial program — in which staff viewed scanned mail saved to CD-ROM after it had been processed by Pitney Bowes Government Solutions, a Northern Virginia company that has done classified scanning for the government — the new version will store mail on a centralized server, allowing staffers to access the mail almost immediately after it is scanned. The new storage system will also allow Hill offices to share information with district staff.

Other features will include enhanced “meta” data, fields such as first and last names and addresses, which will allow participating offices to “drag and drop” the information from each letter into the constituent mail software. If a particular constituent has sent a letter before, the name and address will be recognized and included in that constituent’s correspondence file. The program will also allow staff to search for keywords in documents and to find letters on specific topics.

Although the system was designed in response to security concerns, “the second phase comes with frankly really great things that you can’t do now” with regular postal mail, Ney said.

Anything that cannot be scanned — including bulk mailings, for now — is brought to the office three days later. And offices can request the original, sealed version of any item.

The program could eventually reduce delays caused by the irradiation process. All Congressional mail is currently sent to Bridgeport, N.J., to kill potential biological agents (although irradiation doesn’t inactivate ricin), causing delays of up to a week.

Because mail to offices participating in the pilot program could not be practically separated before it is sent to New Jersey for irradiation, pilot participants still must wait at least a week before seeing their mail. Eventually, however, mail sent to offices participating in the digital mail program could be addressed with a different ZIP code, allowing it to skip the trip north and go straight to digitization, which adds only 24 hours to delivery.

Last summer the committee announced plans to expand the program to include up to 50 personal offices and two committees. Those plans have since been scaled back to what Ney said was a more reasonable number given the technological hurdles without sacrificing the overall goals.

The second phase aims to incorporate an array of constituent-mail software programs used by different offices. It’s open on a first-come, first-served basis to both Democrats and Republicans, Ney said.

“I suspect after this information [about ricin] we’ll have a few phone calls,” Ney said, adding that the program will eventually move into phase three — when it becomes available to the entire House.

Referring to the considerable resistance and even quiet ridicule he endured when he first suggested the program, Ney said: “I pushed very hard. A lot of people didn’t want to look at a pilot. I think what I started with the blessings of the Speaker’s office a year ago is going to have some wings to it.”

Ney said his office called his counterpart on the other side of the Capitol, Senate Rules and Administration Chairman Trent Lott (R-Miss.), and offered to share what the House has learned and demonstrate the program.

In the past, Ney said, “Senator Lott was very positive and interested in what the Senate could do technologically. Our staffs have been sharing information.”

Lott’s office couldn’t be reached Tuesday because all of the Senate office buildings were closed.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), when asked at a press conference Tuesday about technologies that could prevent another potentially deadly toxin from reaching the Hill through the mail, said only: “At each juncture, we will always go back and see if there’s something better, more sophisticated.”